On Objects, Love, and Objectifications: Children in a Material World
also published in:
* peer reviewed journal: The Paulinian Compass. St. Paul University; Manila: Vol. 1, issue #2, June 2009
© 2002, 2005, 2007 Layla AbdelRahim
This work first appeared as a 15-page paper for a doctoral seminar in education at McGill University, Montreal in October 2002. Claudia Mitchell, our professor, challenged us to reflect on the phenomenology of children’s space. My paper for that course focused on my child’s room. I have since incorporated contrastive and reflective elements from my anthropological observations on childhood and edited the form and the content of the first version to present at the CHILDHOODS 2005 conference in July in Oslo.
Before proceeding, I would like to clarify what may come off as a categorical condemnation of ALL society. When I apply these terms, I refer to the official and the generally valued aspects of social organisation where in the name of humanism and civilisation a people condemn wilderness and the freedom of animals, plants, and humans to exist for their own, “irrational” purpose and not as a resource. It is precisely because I understand that all societies are much more variegated than the official or ‘mainstream’ grammar portrays the various ‘nations’ to be that I criticise the attempt to standardise human experience according to the “official party-line” turning this experience into suffering.
Prologue: on Love
How to love a child, asked Janush Korchak, the Polish pediatrician and pedagogue at the beginning of the 20th century, which perhaps meant how to be Human. Yet, most people find it difficult to conceive what it is to be able to listen to a child, to respect a child, and to be there for a child even when not one’s own, even when one feels it is beyond one’s power. The love in your heart will give you the strength, was Korchak’s message. Day or night, he waited by the bedside of a dying child so that when the child’s eyes opened they would meet the doctor’s and the child would know that s/he was not alone in this world and then death would seem less cold, less frightful, less solitary. During World War II, the Germans condemned to death the group of some 200 Orphans in his charge. The doctor had a chance to stay behind. He said that he would not abandon his children at this difficult moment of their lives. He went with them. They all vanished one foggy dawn.
From the biographical note to the Russian edition of How to Love a Child.
Despite the widespread illusion of human “progress”, the pertinence of this question has not diminished: What does it mean to love? And, more specifically, how can we be sure that we do love our children?
on Things: questions of Cost
I often hear parents use the term “love” to justify their absence from their children’s lives replacing themselves with bought objects: ‘I love you, look what I got you”. Or: “stop being ungrateful, dad and I work so hard because we love you; we’ve got to work in order to earn money for your own good”, the logic being:
work is what brings money. Parents’ care for their children is not paid and therefore is not work. A stranger who cares for a child is paid and therefore is considered to work, even though child-care in general is a minimum wage profession – when lucky.
we work so hard in order to earn money with which we can buy you things and other parent-substitutes, such as formula, pacifiers, toys, baby-sitters, educators, friends, books, toys, clothes, more toys, ad infinitum.
Even if not always blatant, repercussions of this reasoning can often be felt in, both, the adults’ view of children as an unprofitable burden and in children’s view of themselves as disparate, void entities and by extension of human relations as severed, calculating and cold. At the basis of these relations lies the desire to accumulate.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu included in the term “possessions” the non-material or social and symbolic capital, such as education, taste, knowledge, etc. Material and non-material possessions acquire their value through social understanding and negotiation. Value is not an inherent aspect of objects, effort or time. It is the result of a complex process that involves mythology, education, and the mobilisation of the whole cultural apparatus in order to impose the idea, which in the capitalist/globablist world means that some individuals and groups earn disgracefully more for their time and effort while others incomparably less or that some things cost less while others peculiarly more.
For example, one could make a t-shirt from scrap, recycled fabric and it would cost one hour worth of effort. If the maker belongs to an upper class with social and economic weight and labels himself or herself as an “haute couture” and not “low couture” designer, s/he could exchange this scrap t-shirt for thousands of dollars. How does this work?
Bourdieu explains that by belonging to a certain group with social and economic power a person has access to the group’s social and symbolic wealth which allows the person to evaluate his or her effort according to the position that s/he occupies in the group’s scale. In this way, a person sells not only the t-shirt but also the label that marks the buyer as a member of that (powerful in this specific example) group. Taste and the act of buying become tickets to specific cliques and, as such, labels differentiate their owner from owners of other labels. Needless to say, that currency ratings undergo similar “operations” in order to blow-up the rate of some and deflate to the point of total misery, even extinction, the currency of others.
Of course this works because people believe in this system or resign to it because they either view it as natural or as inevitable. If people didn’t participate in it, needless to say, it wouldn’t be there. But since most people strive to acquire material and symbolic wealth, they succumb to spending more on overpriced labels, currencies, objects, services, etc. But, as Bourdieu demonstrates, they forget that the stakes in a pyramidal order are predetermined so that the majority will stay at the bottom of the scale regardless of how much they work, purchase or spend. There simply is no space for everyone up there. But the myths are important to give people the hope and the illusion that if they worked hard, studied more, bought and consumed, each one of them could end up there.
on Things: the question of Love, Hatred, and Shame
The culture of childhood, parenthood, or that of child-rearing and education is vital for the endurance of a system, particularly for those who profit from it. What puzzles though is when people who have more to sacrifice than to reap from this system of exchange abandon their children to it and to the professionals trained to safeguard someone else’s interests. Parents justify this act by saying that “we are absent all day from your lives in order to buy you things, care, company, and love”.
Love, in this sense, comprises everything from the hard-core matter to the effervescent idealism that includes taste, types of knowledge, and social networks. They thus transmit matter and love (i.e. desire to possess) for matter.
Love in the other sense, where a person gives something of the self to another, has no place in the culture of baby-sitters, day-care, school, after-school extensions, etc. In fact, the majority of parents secretly (even from themselves) hate themselves and despise their own knowledge or parental skills and feel that they are either incompetent or have nothing to transmit because “only professionals can teach my child” anything of worth; and hence they send their children to the professionals who transmit to those children professional, paid “love” during the 8 am – 6 pm shifts and based on the Ministry of Education curriculum – a programme set not with love and out of love, but from the perspective of how to most efficiently organise labour and consumption patterns. Education offers tools, not love and since the majority has to stay at the bottom to carry the pyramid on their shoulders, the standardised syllabus is the most efficient way to achieve subordination, as long as parents don’t meddle in.
Love, effort, gender issues, have all become useful concerns in contemporary sociology – a normative science, like psychology. Some feminists have even attempted to calculate the value of love in order to create an equation of male and female unaccounted for contribution or effort at home and in society – not a bad idea in itself when seen from this logic of experience but highly problematic because it perpetuates that same logic where parenthood is understood as an investment that begins with the provision of social and material capital before and at the expense of other aspects of children’s and family’s well-being, leading to a crisis of childhood, parenthood and family.
This crisis is the result of the pricing system discussed above, since the time and effort spent by a parent on a child is not valued and childcare is a low pay occupation. For example, how are we going to evaluate the process of conception? Who spent how much time and who gained what? Then, how about the time, sleep, and litres of blood “spent” on a pregnancy and then on breast-feeding (mother’s milk is made from the woman’s blood and needs good nutrition, outdoors light, sleep and time)? Then how are we going to price the time spent on bonding? On caring? Or on the zillion other intricacies of human relationships?
My point is that motherhood is priceless. But it can not be without material or emotional support from others, particularly from the more powerful. For example, every politician in North America could easily support fully AT LEAST 5 families in the third world and MORE than one single mothers in his own country. Since society is set up to have these people (mostly men) rule, society can begin with them its reorganisation towards a more just world.
We can continue restructuring other “social” fields as well: for example, I propose that if a graduate student, particularly with a family, gets funding refused for his or her research, those professors who have been approached for letters of recommendation split the costs of the family among themselves (I bet the ‘letter of recommendation’ system would be immediately abolished). And don’t even let me start on businesses; only when these people begin to divide fairly what they make off the fruit of other people’s labour can we begin to refer to human conglomeration as “society”. The term ‘society’, together with the accompanying notion of ‘service to society’, appears as a set-up set up in order to trick people and weaken them. In fact, the term is more appropriate to wolves and felines who do more for each other’s children than we do.
And so, childcare can never have a price-tag because there is too much at stake. But what happens is that the majority of people, in general, and in the sphere of childcare, in particular, work hard and dirty yet fare poorly.
The low status of parenthood, just like other “dirty” jobs, in market economy is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, the capitalist system needs producers to generate clean streets, technological or industrial gadgets, and future generations of workers and soldiers. Yet, these “producers” are despised.
Marilyn Bronstein who ran a women’s co-op for mothers with young children in Montreal found out that she could not mention the word “mother” in applications for grants: “You have to say “women”. Wait a minute, but aren’t women mothers? Apparently not. The second No-no is any mention of childcare. My project focused on creating community viable outlets. Childcare is time and energy consuming. It is a serious issue, if you want the best for the family. Apparently, that is not viewed as a socially viable solution that deserved serious (i.e. publicly funded) consideration”.
Another grant, Marilyn explained, intended to help women get into non-traditional jobs. “I told that to my agent and he said ‘so you’re going to stir up all these women and then there won’t be any jobs waiting for me’, so I changed the grant to teaching women self-esteem when they’re not in the workforce. And I got the grant. Grant priorities change from year to year like fashion”.
This attitude towards parenthood in general, but motherhood specifically, is both a reflection of and the force behind the dismissal of childcare as a low priority private and social responsibility. Instead, it shifts the focus on symbolic values and on materialism that other occupations may foster.
However, there seems to be few winners in this system of things. For, if the poor workers bestow little time, social capital, or precious matter upon their progeny, those who fare better financially compensate with acquisitions the time they lose at work and in social networking at clubs, bars, parties, or in other forms of entertainment. In this logic, things become directly proportionate to “love” and raise many questions, such as what type of people and the degree of their health can such a culture nurture. By health I mean functioning in harmony with the social and natural environment.
The topic of poverty is key here, but unfortunately, I have limited space and time to give it its due. In this work, I concentrate on material culture as a context for relationships because access to material goods is an important part of how people view themselves and their relationships with others. Here are two examples to illustrate this self-perception.
“I grew up extremely poor,” I heard on several occasions in Canada and the U.S. Such proclamation startled me. What is it like to characterise oneself as poor? Myself, I grew up in a household with financial strains – at times dire – but I never perceived myself or my family as “poor”. Rather the opposite. Growing up, I felt happy. I asked what it meant to grow up poor in North America. My poor interlocutors replied that they couldn’t buy new clothes.
“It was horrible. I hated going to school, ‘cause others had fancy new clothes while mine always came from the thrift shop. And then for X-mass, everyone had those big X-mass trees with lots of new decorations and boxes and boxes of gifts, but we always had this same old plastic one with the same old stuff and little second-hand-shop gifts. I hated my mother. I hated my home. I was always so ashamed of them. Brrr… I couldn’t wait to grow up and get away from them [parents]…” explained Lynne, a graduate of Smith College who grew up in California.
Suzan, a writer, from Ontario also focused on clothes.
I grew up extremely poor. I never had new clothes. They were always hand-downs. My mother decided to have the three of us knowing she’d be a single mom since my father never intended to marry her. But she couldn’t handle the responsibility. So when we got the welfare cheque, we felt like millionaires. That’s how poor we’ve been…. I always attended private schools, ‘cause I had scholarships. All those other kids had rich parents and nice things and I was always wearing hand-down pants. Sometimes 5th generation. I hated it.
Both of these examples are characteristic of the majority of the comments I heard on growing up poor in the context of “developed” countries. Much of the perception of poverty is related to wanting new things, more things, better things, like-other-people’s things, better-than-other-people’s things. In other words, the pressure to fit into an outside material standard shifts the dimensions of inside relations and togetherness to splintered childhoods, shattered by objects, the lack of them, and the desire to possess.
Suzan’s comment is the more interesting, because it reveals the extent of privation to which her family was subjected apart from having had to wear hand-down clothes. For, if they lived on less than welfare for several years, it means that they had no provision even in terms of basic necessities and in Western countries – where access to nature and public space costs money – it means that they were also deprived of space along with time.
For example, public transportation is expensive and is not comprehensive in what it can reach. Without a car, one feels handicapped in North America. Many bicycle paths leading to the countryside in Quebec, for example le petit chemin du nord, cost money. To have a workshop, a studio or a spot for writing is extra $s/m2. Needless to say that each meal counts towards the energy and time needed to perform a task. No meal – no energy. Time ticks between the meals and the longer the gap – the less there is of performance. This applies to everything, to meals and to bills, if the shoes are too tight, too leaky, too uncomfortable, one can’t get far in cold weather; one gets stressed. If there is no coat, if there is no heating (and we know that heating companies cut it off if a family doesn’t pay); one gets stressed. Hungry and crowded people with no exit, whether they are children or adults, scream and burst out with aggression sometimes against the violence of institutionalised injustice but more often amongst themselves and against those weaker than themselves.
Suzan’s case is not an exception, rather the contrary. For example, here is what the Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America (pp 280-283) says about Canada, who boasts more national wealth and higher commitment to social justice than some other countries: “Younger single people, aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, women, and children are more likely to be poor than other Canadians. …(U)nattached seniors, particularly women, have very high poverty rates…. The poverty rate for young single people increased from 39% in 1981 to 61% in 1997. The poverty rate for persons with disabilities was 31% in 1995…. Single women under age 65 have higher poverty rates than men, 41% compared to 35%. Female single parents had the highest poverty rate of all family types at 56% in 1997. Child poverty remains a particular concern to Canadians because children are unambiguously not to blame for their situation. Also, raising children in poverty hampers their career opportunities”. Children’s poverty rate, regardless of background, rose to 1.4 million or 20% of the total population by year 2000 (data taken from an article by Richard Shillington, ibid).
The formulation of the above paragraph implies that, since children are not to blame for their poverty, adults are to be held accountable for their misfortunes. Yet, the authors concede that growing up poor hampers the opportunities when these children become adults. So, my question is, are we to blame them when they grow up or do we concede that all adults have once been children who either grew up in want or were coerced into it?
Now, if Canadian statistics on poverty are outrageous, the United States boasts the highest poverty poverty rate among industrialised states.
Prison statistics are further revealing of the distribution of power and social relations in North America and their effect on childhood and parenthood. For example, according to Vicky Pelaezi, there “are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the [U.S.]. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people”.
Since prisoners constitute an important niche for cheap labour, the solution sought in North America, is to make prisons private, where prisoners would work directly for big businessesii who now find Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans too hungry and too dying to work yet too costly.
According to Statistics Canada, Canadians don’t fare much better. Whole groups can find themselves ousted from the arena of national wealth. The example of the aboriginal nations shows that aboriginals comprise 3% of total populace. Yet, most of them are either in poverty or in jail.
In Saskatchewan, Aboriginal adults are incarcerated at 35 times the rate of non-aboriginals, where they make up 77% of the total prisoner population (10% of outside population)
In the Yukon — Aboriginal adults make up 74% of the total prisoner population (20% of outside population)
In Manitoba — Aboriginal adults make up 70% of the total prisoner population (11% of outside population)
In Alberta — Aboriginal adults make up 38% of the total prisoner population (4% of outside population)
In Ontario — Aboriginal adults make up 9% of the total prisoner population (1% of outside population)
In British Columbia — Aboriginal adults make up 20% of the total prisoner population (10% of outside population)
Aboriginal Women (2004-2005)
Aboriginal women make up 30% of the female prisoner population
In Saskatchewan, Aboriginal women account for 87% of all female admissions
In Manitoba and the Yukon, Aboriginal women account for 83% of all female admissions
In Alberta, Aboriginal women account for 54% of all female admissions
In British Columbia, Aboriginal women account for 29% of all female admissions”iii
The main question that begs itself here, is who and what factors are responsible for all these people being in poverty or jail. However, we are concerned with the effect of these social relations on childhood and parenthood. If we consider that, in rich countries alone, over the utterly miserable multitudes hovers a hefty miserable middle class stressing over making ends meet, that leaves a very small group of satisfied childhoods who are out of poverty or out of jail. The most important revelation of the statistics, though, is the brutality and injustice towards motherhood, womanhood, ethnic minorities and childhood and youth.
To return to personal interpretations, what struck me in Suzan’s and other reflections, is that their perception of poverty concentrated on the lack of new clothes. They never expressed to me compassion or love towards their struggling parents and siblings, only hatred and shame – understandable emotions towards the violence inherent to the injustice of social relations fostered by seclusion, alienation deprivation and stress.
Suzan also judged her mother as irresponsible, because it is widely assumed in this globalising culture that parenthood is to be deserved and earned according to the scale of income. The moral and the material thus, once again, intertwine and the alienation of victims from their own interests is appalling.
“I’m against prolonged maternity leave,” said Agnes, a chemist from Montreal. “Each time I had a kid, I went back to the laboratory when they were 3 months old. If you don’t have enough money to pay for your staying at home, then you have to work. If you can’t work, then don’t have kids. It’s as simple as that”. Agnes had 2 children and said that she couldn’t afford any more”.
These examples indicate that in North America, even in Canada where parents can resort to a more extended parental leave and welfare, the notion of having children is tightly connected to income. Income, children and the standard of living are conceptualised as natural categories that are the result of a person’s worth and a reflection of what the person deserves: if one has much money, one deserves it. If one is in financial strain, one merited it too. Love and compassion are read in the context and from a life-stance of capitalism and consumerism.
Moreover, these examples reveal that the pressure to possess – not make – things is a major force underlying the feeling of deprivation and poverty. It is a reflection of impotence and sterility since people can not generate what they need and yet are coerced to provide things ignoring the context of pain and exploitation that is inherent to capitalist production and market economy. It is important to remember though, that when parents choose to replace themselves with toys, books, live-in-care, nannies, genetically modified food, etc. they replace themselves with objects imbued with immense suffering.
“Successful” capitalism is based on the exploitation for profit of, not only time and space, but of living organisms in all their forms: food, services, labour. A nanny living with and caring for a wealthy child in North America or Europe abandons behind 5 children in the Philippines so she could send her hungry in all the senses children the miserable pennies bestowed on her by the wealthy Northerners. The genetically modified grains, fruits and vegetables carry sterile seeds that are incapable of the basic instinct of life: self-reproduction. The sterilisation of pets, the poisonous pesticides and fungicides, the dying from exhaustion and malnutrition third-worlders, the stressed-to-the-point-of-madness first- and second-worlders, the animals tortured in farms and in medical and scientific laboratories, and so much more – all engender objects of hatred, suffering and death. This context is an essential part of the relationship between objects and people.
Children abandoned to these objects inhale this hatred and suffering. Abandoned to the claws of ministerial curriculum they also learn to perceive themselves as poor. Conceiving themselves as poor, they become impotent, lusting to amass and to consume and when they cannot satisfy this urge, instead of questioning the system that betrayed them, most often, they internalise their place in it and learn to hate themselves and their parents.
Hatred seems to be the central lesson of a curriculum that leads to devout consumerism and hence to a crisis of childhood, parenthood and family.
on Things: the question of categorization and interests
The symptoms of this crisis are manifest in the rise of statistical rates on neurological and mental disorders that indicate children’s alienation from themselves and their environment. For example, anorexia, bulimia and plastic surgeries reveal self-hate; autism, dyslexia and other reading or learning disorders, attention span deficit, hyperactivity, depression (manic, chronic or whatever) schizophrenia, outbursts of violence, just to name a few – all point to the disconnectedness from the self and from the outside world. Yet, we cover up the truth with “intelligent” jargon.
The formulation used in Statistics Canada is an excellent example of how language can conceal cause and effect. The subtitle is already an exercise in linguistics: “The transition from home to school: a key factor in identifying certain types of disability in children”; for it remains an open question as to whether, just because there might be some “deviance” in a few children, all children should be subjected to treatment as suspect. Doesn’t the mechanism of questioning often bear the fruit of confession regardless of whether one has committed the crime or not?
Further, the authors say that the proportions of some types of disability, among which they list learning disabilities, increase when children begin to attend school. They propose the following explanation: “The transition from home to school may explain some of this variation. For example, learning disabilities are often not apparent until the child begins to attend school; as well, these difficulties are more easily detected within the school contextiv”.
The authors do not seem to question whether the school “detects” the problem or perhaps causes it. It is even more peculiar that many parents do not think that there may be anything wrong with the fact that their child has been learning well at home yet at school gets diagnosed with a learning disability or that sometimes the child’s behaviour deteriorates and even changes completely the minute s/he is placed in school.
This does not come as a surprise, though, if we consider that society’s logic categorises the expectation itself of a child along with diseases and disorders. A doctor in the United States explained to me the reason behind the signs on university campuses inviting students to the infirmary. The ads group pregnancy together with sexual diseases, the doctor said, because as a “natural”, “biological” category, pregnancy is a parasitic growth with tumor-like behaviour.
The point here is not to argue pro-life or pro-choice in the American political sense. The point is categorisation itself that is not neutral but has the power to impart specific knowledge, logic and values that are part of symbolic capital. In the logic of a culture that emphasises individualism often pushed to the extreme of egotism, indeed, any life that comes to depend on another, be it a child on a parent, a parent on a child, a friend on a friend, an unemployed on “social aid”, etc., is seen as parasitic, as illness. Hence it becomes vital to conceal through language the ultimate dependence of the rich on poverty, desire, and suffering.
In spite of all, children appear. They manage to appear in a world of totalitarian birth control, high-tech medical facilities, and institutinalised schizophrenia. Each is a miracle indeed. Yet, these miracles begin to suffer and to battle for their existence before they are even conceived as an idea. When they are conceived as physical entities, their scream for love and their whole being are reduced to physical explanations.
North American scientists accentuate the “genetic” or “physiological” interpretations of human mystery such as the murderous gene, the gay chromosome, the serotonin levels, and so forth. These explanations allow parents and all involved to ignore, with a somnified conscience, the symptoms of unhappiness, frustration, atrophy and decay. Instead of changing the system that causes this vacuum and pain, they dive deeper, submerging their families in the ocean of material love and beloved purchases. Medication, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, criminologists, police, et al are all necessary attributes in this system of things, paid for by the parents’ sacrifice of their children and love on the scaffold of civilisation. In this regard, archeology, phenomenology and hermeneutics were bound to take root in a culture that valued possessions.
Bourdieu defined Western materialism as a system in the relationship between the possessor and the object of possession in these terms:
“Legitimate manners owe their value to the fact that they manifest the rarest conditions of acquisition, that is, a social power over time which is tacitly recognized as the supreme excellence: to possess things from the past, i.e. accumulated, crystallized history, aristocratic names and titles, chateaux or ‘stately homes’, paintings and collections, vintage wines and antique furniture, is to master time, through all those things whose common feature is that they can only be acquired in the course of time, by means of time, against time, that is, by inheritance or through dispositions which, like the taste for old things, are likewise only acquired with time and applied by those who can take their time”
Not only time becomes a dimension of wealth, it is as if things can secure immortality; as if they can vanquish the poverty of the spirit and the feebleness of the body. Today’s parents are fetishists who consistently weaken their children with the consumerist lifestyle. As Mitchell and Reid-Walsh note in their research on children’s popular culture, a child’s bedroom has become the nest or “haven of ‘hyper consumerism’ and popular culture fantasy” (113). In fact, the room, in itself, can be regarded as punishment, for, the authors further note that “[b]eing sent to one’s room, as we see represented in the children’s book by Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are (1983) is regarded as punishment; it is not the same as going there freely…” (113). I would venture further in this connection: Consumerism is punishment!